“Once upon a time,” I begin my story, “there lived a king whose name was …” Here I stop. Henry? No, too common. John? Too short. George? Nah, I keep misspelling it while typing fast. Besides, why am I limiting this to English names? The story certainly doesn’t require it.
Let’s begin again. “His name was …” Mbwango? Hmm, a bit of a tongue twister. Kwon Yun Ming Chan? Too long. Muhammad? Not exclusive enough, too prolific and popular. Dmitri? Suddenly I’m trying too hard—and I’m still stuck on the first page of what was supposed to be my masterpiece.
One of my major problems when writing any story isn’t the plot, the personalities, the setting, the tone, the language. No, the point at which I stumble is far more superficial: names. With stories based on incidents from my life and the real world, I like my characters to have ordinary names—but not names so common they take away the unique flavor of the work. I confess that most times I solve this problem by, well, procrastination: I write in a first-person narrative so that I don’t have to worry about naming the narrator until the fifth page or so. By this time the story has usually come to
life and taken the decision out of my hands. But when a story lends itself to third person, I’m nearly always stymied.
“There’s really no simple answer,” author Jonathan Kellerman says. “Rarely, I engage in a pun—for example, the manic-depressive Richard Moody in my novel Blood Test. But more often, names just float into my head. After 32 novels, I’ve ‘created’ thousands of characters, so the challenge is not to duplicate.”
Bestseller David Baldacci says he doesn’t have a set formula. Author Debby Holt doesn’t, either. “I don’t find it difficult to choose names for characters. They seem to arise quite naturally,” Holt says. “I suspect many of them are influenced by people I’ve known. For example, in my latest novel, Recipe for Scandal, there is a young woman called Hannah who is not unlike an old school friend, Hannah, of my daughter. On the other hand, another character in the same book is called Alberta to illustrate a quirk of her mother, who named her after Albert Camus. So there are no hard and fast rules.”
Other authors opt for more methodical approaches. Jeffrey Archer, for instance, watches the credits at the end of films. “Or I might see a surname I like in a newspaper. I keep them all on a list,” he says. “Then, when the time comes to begin writing, I’ll look back at that list and pick out the ones that best suit the characters.”
British comedy writer David Nobbs employs a similar technique. “I occasionally use, for surnames, names of places I’ve been to, or of people I know, or of names I’ve seen on businesses and shops, and once or twice I’ve used a few names from the worlds of football and cricket—two sports that I love. But in the main they just seem to come to me, and people seem to think that I have a good feel for them.” Nobbs admits, though, that he sometimes has trouble with given names. “Christian names are more difficult. In books you have to be careful not to give the wrong impression of a person; the Christian name will be part of the information the reader uses to form his or her own picture of the character. Also, Christian names are heavily influenced by fashion, and one has to get that right for the age of the person.”
Beyond advice from some of the most popular names (pardon the pun) in the writing world, another avenue worth exploring is the breed of websites like BABYHOLD.COM. You also might try adding the suffixes “-son” and “-man” to common nouns to create passable Anglo-American surnames. (For example, “car” and “-son” makes Carson.) If all else fails, pick the first name of your favorite author and the last name of your most hated editor and combine the two. (Anyone for Tom Kest?)
With my king still nameless, the go-to method I eventually invent for myself is somewhat more unconventional. Eyes closed, I randomly open a dictionary. Then I run a finger down the middle of a column while mentally keeping a beat, and stop at the count of six. (Why six? Because on this occasion, my story has six characters.) “Macamba: (n) Tropical American feather palm having a swollen spiny trunk and edible nuts.” Interesting.
I repeat the process and come up with “Tabes: (n) Wasting of the body during a chronic disease.” Ah, just sublime. Then I switch the last letters. Et voila! Tabea Macambs. Pretty exotic, eh? Satisfied, I concoct five more names similarly. My foolproof system of nomenclature works perfectly each time. I return to my story and go on to spin a complex yarn involving cryptic clues, mysterious missions, dangerous villains, beautiful damsels, deceit and daredevilry. I’m so elated with the outcome that I lose no time in submitting the manuscript to a magazine.
Back comes the prompt reply: “We like your story and could potentially use it. Would you be open to making a few minor changes — specifically, the names of the characters?”
Sigh. Sometimes you just can’t win.